We’ve Come a Long Way But…

When it comes to women in science, the Athena Swan ‘brand’ is well established. By now, universities up and down the country are signed up to the Athena Swan Charter and many departments are seriously engaged with the process. Nevertheless there are still many that are not, and even of those that apparently are there is the danger that some see it as no more than a tick-box exercise in order to get the necessary seal of approval. Now the Athena Swan process is being expanded to other disciplines we have to hope that the good work that the awards have engendered is not diluted or weakened by trying to create a ‘one size fits all’ process which ends up not addressing the fundamental issues in different disciplines.

The Athena awards grew out of what started as a very modest initiative, the Athena Project, funded by HEFCE back in 1999. The founding group of women – Julia Higgins, Nancy Lane and Caroline Fox – sought ways to make the money HEFCE granted them reach as far as possible. They started off trying to identify and encourage good practice around gender issues and induce culture change for women in academic science. This phase ran until 2002. The second phase ran until 2007, focussing more on the development of tools and methodologies. Out of this second phase grew the Athena Swan awards.

At the end of last year the Athena Forum* (which I chaired between 2009 and 2013), the group that took over the Athena legacy after 2008, held an event to celebrate the pioneering work of the Athena Project, to consider its successes and to discuss where future effort should be put to ensure progress does not let up: we have not yet reached a point where these matters no longer need to be considered and there undoubtedly is still work to be done. As part of the celebrations, and to ensure the hard work that went into the many different projects associated with the early years of Athena, a review has been prepared by Caroline Fox, bringing together reports of all the earlier work. This review will serve as a useful reminder of where the community stood not so very long ago and also identify approaches that were more or less successful. This report and the executive summary will shortly be found on the Athena Forum’s about-to-be-relaunched website.

As Ottoline Leyser, the current Forum Chair, says in the Introduction to the report, there is still a long way to go ‘The forces against which culture change must work mean that constant sustained pressure is essential’. And, as many individuals know to their cost, too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’. The changes that many departments have enacted are encouraging but others have yet really to embrace the idea that diversity benefits everyone.

The Athena Forum will continue to build on the legacy of the Athena Project and to work with others, particularly research funders, to ensure that gender equality really is embedded in every academic science department and that all researchers encounter a genuinely level playing field. Equality requires not only the leadership talking the talk but putting cash on the table too. Funders need to do more to consider whether their own processes are unintentionally disadvantaging certain sections of the community. Universities need to consider whether the criteria they deploy when appointing and promoting individuals are still fit for purpose or whether they are reinforcing a culture that may have suited traditional, male career paths but no longer reflect the way many individuals live their lives. We’ve come a long way in the 15 years since the Athena Project was launched, but we have still much more to do.

*Updated 20-1-15 with correct weblink for newly launched Athena Forum website inserted.


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